Chinese Numbers Made Easy
If you glance through a couple of articles on China, don’t be surprised if your head starts to spin with the sheer scale of things.
The Great Wall? 21,196 kilometers long.
102 cities with a population over 1,000,000. Over 9 million square kilometers of land area. 549 million airline passengers last year.
These are astounding numbers. How can you even begin to make sense of them?
It’s easy – start with the basics. Start with Chinese numbers themselves.
Right off the bat, you can breathe a sigh of relief. The Chinese number system is one of the most logical and regular number systems in the world.
Everybody is familiar with Arabic numerals, but the Chinese numerals are still in wide use all over the Chinese-speaking world.
Using Chinese Numbers
You’ve got your regular, one-syllable numbers from zero to ten:
Then after that, you stack up your characters to represent the numbers greater than ten.
十一 shíyī (11)
十四 shísì (14)
六十七 liùshíqī (67)
After 99 (九十九) we start counting in terms of 100s instead of 10s, using the character 百.
There’s another character for thousands 千 and one for ten-thousands 万.
After that we count in terms of “ten ten-thousands” and “hundred ten-thousands” (100,000 and 1,000,000 respectively) until we get to 亿 – ten million, and the largest single-character number you’re likely to come across.
Let’s try a bit of practice before taking a look at how these numbers get used in real life.
二千四百万 (the population of Shanghai)
三十三 (the number of Chinese provinces)
八千一百五 (the length of the Table of General Standard Chinese Characters)
Now, hopefully this doesn’t take the wind out of your sails, but most Chinese numbers you’ll encounter in the wild are in the Arabic form that you already know. Regular old 1, 10, 100, 10,000…
You’ll see the numerals 一 through 十 used fairly often. If you take a look at some movie subtitles, you’ll notice that the numerals get used in speech just like these numbers are usually “spelled out” in English writing.
“Wǒmen yǒu sān gè háizi.”
“We have three children.”
In fact, that’s because the Chinese number system is a representation of the way numbers are used in speech. In English we can write the number “460” with the Arabic numerals or in words, e.g. “four hundred sixty.”
When it comes to Chinese numerals, there’s no difference! You write out the characters exactly the same way that you speak the numbers in conversation. Nothing to it!
Note that above I used the number 三 with the classifier 个 (gè). The number two changes when it’s used before a classifier to the counting-number 两 (liǎng). Any time you’re counting “two of something”, use 两.
“Wǒ de fángjiān yǒu liǎng shàn chuānghù.”
“My room has two windows.”
“Tā měitiān kàn liǎng bù diànyǐng.”
“He watches two movies every day.’
Let’s Take It A Step Further
The characters 第 (dì)and 号 (hào) are both used for numbers in a list, so you could call them ordinal forms.
When you’re listing out a ranking or sequence, use 第 as follows: 第一, 第二, 第三… which translates exactly to first, second, third, and so on.
“Wǒ dì yī cì qù rìběn, tiānqì chāojí lěng.”
“The first time I went to Japan, the weather was really cold.”
号, on the other hand, is for saying “Number X” for example with room numbers, phone numbers, and days in a month. This one goes after the number. It’s also often used in a two-syllable form as 号码 (hàomǎ).
Staying in room 15? That’ll appear on your bill as 15号. Player 4 on the basketball team? 4号 in the game commentary.
When you discuss dates, add the 号 to represent what requires “-nd, -th, -st” in English. So the 15th of March is written as 三月十五号 (sān yuè shí wǔ hào) – literally 3 month, number 15.
Speaking of dates, how do you deal with years?
Equally simple: You pronounce each number separately and add 年 (nián) to make it clear that it’s a year.
yī jiǔ jiǔ sì nián
(the year) 1994
Just like other languages, you’ll hear this reduced a little for recent years where the century is clear from the context.
líng bā nián de dàxuǎn
The ‘08 elections
Because the character 零 is relatively complicated, if the numerals are used for a year then the much simpler 〇 is often substituted. This is the only Chinese character with a circle!
èr líng yī bā nián
(the year) 2018
Just as you saw earlier with 两, there’s still room for a little variation in the way Chinese numbers are used. Here are a couple of interesting notes on alternate forms and usages:
The character 一 is pronounced yī, as you know, but if you and your conversation partner are having trouble hearing each other clearly (a bad phone line, for instance) you can use the alternate number “yao” for clarity.
我在说一遍: 我的电话号码是 八七七幺幺三…
“Wǒ zài shuō yībiàn: wǒ de diànhuà hàomǎ shì bā qī qī yāo yāo sān…”
“I’ll say it again: My phone number is 877113…”
There’s a special form of 两 used in several Mandarin dialects to refer to two people. Add the “person” radical to the character and you get 俩 (liǎ). In a couple other Mandarin dialects there’s another for three: 仨 (sā).
“Nǐmen liǎ, kuài diǎnr!”
“Hurry up, you two!”
If you find yourself having to fill out a bank form, wire money, or write a check in Chinese, you’ll notice that the bank provides helpful placards with alternate, more complicated forms of the numbers. They’re called “capital numbers” or 大写 in Chinese.
This is kind of like writing a check in English, where you have to specify “sixty-five dollars and twelve cents” so that nobody can change your 6 to an 8 after the fact and pocket the difference.
See if you can find the connections between the standard forms above and these more formal banking characters!
Whether you find yourself using Chinese numbers for business or tourism, conversation or correspondence, it will do you good to take a look at the intricacies of the system. Also, I mentioned how a few numbers are pronounced. This post on Chinese pronunciation will help you understand the tones and such a bit more.
The counting system is simple enough, and it’s something you can pick up quickly from an article like this one.
But only through exposing yourself to a lot of natural and authentic Chinese will you get a feeling for the subtler aspects of when to use the alternate forms and dialect characters.
That’s why you should use a platform like LingQ that can provide you with a huge range of great content, no matter your interest.
Check out the Basic Chinese courses, and get started today! For more tips on learning Mandarin, check out LingQ cofounder and polygloit Steve Kaufmann’s video:
Alex Thomas has studied Chinese in three countries and spoken it in six. He is counting the days until he can return to his favourite cities.